Love, Hate, and Change.
There have been several key turning points in the life of U2. Some would credit these re-inventions for U2’s remarkably long and multi-peaked career arc in a music business where careers are increasingly measured in days, not decades. Achtung Baby is one of these turning points, and as such is predictably loved and hated depending on the context of the listener- even within the band! The Edge, U2’s highly unique and equally loved and hated guitarist refers to the work as U2’s finest, while straight shooting drummer Larry Mullen could often be quoted using the word “shit” in his descriptions (most particularly of the name).
Achtung Baby, its accompanying video imagery, and groundbreaking ZOO TV multimedia extravaganza/tour, shocked fans with a new layer of darkness and irony- from a band they had come to know as soul bearing, earnest, preachers of the gospel of rock and roll. In 1991 big hair cheese metal was giving up on the stockings and wigs, The Cure’s lipstick no longer interested anyone, and the gates were stormed by guys in plaid flannel shirts and faux earnest khaki shorts. Just at that pivotal moment- U2’s Bono (who had spent the last decade in “faux earnest” jeans) greased back the hair, put on the wraparound shades, the leather pants, and started playing the role of Ziggy Stardust. As Bob Dylan once said, “The best way to serve an age is to betray it.” U2 even appeared in full drag in promotional pictures and in one of the three different videos for the song One- parodying the scarves and makeup days of Poison, a band with whom they share, not surprisingly, something of a love/hate relationship. The irony, darkness, and ambiguity, while initially disconcerting to fans, was an important step for the continued existence and success of U2. The Edge has described the previous period, centering around their wonderful bellwether hit The Joshua Tree, as a band suffocating in its own idealism and stringent earnesty. The politically charged and involved rockers needed some time to rest, and maybe wallow in pop culture for a while.
Well enough context already, let’s talk about music. Achtung Baby’s most striking aural characteristic is its bold, brash, strange, and memorable guitar riffs atop a highly melodic and pleasant rhythm section. For irony and ambiguity check out Until The End of The World, a dark yet soaring, and even very U2-esque, rock runner supposedly about the betrayal of Christ from Judas’s (!) point of view. For strange guitars and neat rhythms try Even Better Than the Real Thing, which features the traditional comforts of bongos and a rolling bass line, and then confronts you with a multi octave (!) pitch shifting guitar effect and a solo with a strong middle eastern flavor. All of this, you’ll have to take my word on this one, wrapped up in well-crafted rock/pop songs. Really.
Achtung Baby’s most enduring moment is easily the tremendous hit One, which blessed radio airwaves for months. A perfectly balanced beautiful, yet just slightly gritty, ballad that has as many distinct interpretations as listeners. Some say it was about AIDS (proceeds from the single were donated to AIDS research)- some say it is about love, others about war, race, romance, lust. Three different videos were made by three different directors- all three were released and saw significant airplay on MTV. To this day I don’t know what the song is about but the overarching theme seems to be one of brotherly love and understanding. Is is getting better? / or do you feel the same? / does it make it easier on you now / you've got someone to blame? Well its too late, tonight / to drag the past out into the light ... We’re one / but we’re not the same / we’ve got to carry each other / carry each other / One.
Achtung Baby was the beginning of a defining epoch for U2, one that lasted a full decade and is just now being swallowed up in a new Beautiful Day for the lads.